|Field Near Irmenach Germany|
I need to thank my wife Debbie for reviewing the story in its' earliest phases and for making helpful suggestions. Debbie also is better than any electronic spell checker or grammer checker. Thanks also to my daughter, Kelley Mayfield, for her suggestions. I had used some foreshadowing but then never followed up. Thanks. Thanks also to my friend, Hal McKee, for pointing out some difficult areas. My good friend, Babu Mummaneni, M.D., one of the best neurologists around, reviewed the story to make sure I got the medical parts right.
© 2013 by Francis DiBona
All rights reserved. No part of this document may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission of Francis DiBona.
By Francis DiBona
The day it happened started as just an ordinary day. There were no premonitions, no black cats, no broken mirrors. I felt no foreboding, no ill-fated winds, no karma. Nothing but how great it was to be alive. I lived a charmed life and I knew it. As usual, I stepped into the shower that morning, its’ hot water soothing my face, my head, my body, the soap-lathered washcloth cleansing not just the oils and odors of a good night’s sleep but also my spirit. As I did every morning I gave thanks for the abundance that had been bestowed on me, especially for Kim, my wife, with her rattling good looks, her head-turning figure, her brilliance, her elegance, and her humanity. How lucky I was to have been at the same party that she was, and that when we met we connected so fast and so completely, and that after nine years of being together we are still so much in love. As I stepped out of the shower, drying myself off, I looked in the mirror and thought, “Not bad, for thirty.” I could use a few more push-ups and sit-ups, but still “not bad.” I felt good about myself, good about my life, and thankful for everything. All very ordinary.
On the morning it happened I sat down to breakfast with Kim and the boys as I did every morning. Kim always woke the boys so that we could sit down for breakfast, scrambled eggs and bacon for Steve and Dave, but only oatmeal, skim milk, and black coffee for me. I don't like a heavy breakfast before going to work since it makes me feel slow and lethargic when I need to be alert and on my feet. This morning I was operating on five patients, starting with the base commander's wife, who was scheduled for colon surgery at 0800. I had spent an hour with her and the General two days ago, going over the procedure and the possible complications, but I didn’t think they grasped any of it. The General, used to being in charge, felt helpless in this situation, and he glazed over as I explained what was planned. I lost her as soon as I mentioned the “C-word”. I was confident that the surgery would cure the cancer but I didn’t think that she understood anything. Whenever possible, I wanted my patients and their families fully prepared, knowing what to expect and what could go wrong. Especially, I guess, with a General’s wife.
On the morning it happened I held Steve and Dave, one in each arm, and kissed them. I told them not to touch my nose, a game we played every morning. They immediately tried to touch my nose and I turned my head this way and that to make it hard for them to get their fingers on the target. I kept telling them sternly, "Don't touch my nose." When they inevitably touched a finger to my nose it was like they had pushed a release button. I loosened my grip on them and they slid down my torso quickly to the ground. We all love this little amusement. Then I kissed them and told them I loved them and asked them to care for their mother.
On the morning it happened, Kim and I gave each other a short kiss on the lips followed by a longer, more sensual kiss. Kim groaned and raised her left leg along my thigh and pushed her hips into mine, a flirting come-on, announcing that she was hot and ready, and making me wish I could call in sick. I looked at the boys, playing cars, oblivious of our shenanigans, and I dreaded the day, hopefully years away, when we would have to be more discreet.
I had known Kim for nine joyful years. We dated during my last two years of medical school, married shortly after I graduated, and trekked through five years of residency and two years in the Air Force. Considering that many of my classmates had been deployed to Vietnam, our posting to Germany was golden, giving us opportunity to see all of Europe, while immersing ourselves in the German language and culture.
I loved Kim's long blond hair, her smile, her warmth, her humor, and intelligence. But I'm ashamed to admit that what first attracted her to me was her chest. I saw her walking across the room at a medical school fraternity party sporting a tight fitting lime green sweater, looking like a Hollywood star or Miss October. My eyes zoomed in on her breasts but I did eventually force myself to look up at her face, a little too late. She caught me gawking and came over to me ready to ream me out. Her perfume, Ciara, was intoxicating, neither flowery nor musky, as beguiling as she was.
"I saw you staring at my chest!" she yelled, pointing her finger menacingly at me.
"It's not polite to point," I told her.
"It's not polite to stare!"
I held my hands out, palms up, and bounced them up and down like I was weighing two cantaloupes.
"You have two great big, soft, beautiful..." and here I paused for effect,,, "eyes!"
She gasped but didn't frown. That would have been a bad omen.
I followed, "Besides, you're the one walking around in that sweater! And that perfume! Are you sure that's legal?"
“You are a misogynist pig!" she said, but any wrath was already starting to melt.
"Thank you." I said with a smile, stalling to get my bearings. "But I'm in medical school and I don't understand such big words. What does... 'pig' mean?" She had the faintest hint of a smile but before she counter I added, "I meant what does 'misogynist' mean? Is that the kind of doctor who delivers babies?" She grinned but was still was not sure how to take me.
"No, a misogynist is someone who hates women."
“That's not me." I replied looking her right in the eyes. "I love a woman who can cook and clean."
She laughed so loud the party goers around us strained to see what was funny. She put her hands on her hips, and gave me a stern mischievous look, but unable to maintain it, she broke into a broad grin and said, "Well you are a chauvinist!"
Now I was the one who could not keep a straight face.
"Wrong again!” I said. “I'm a Catholic!"
The day it happened, I wore my heavy flight jacket over my white lab coat and scrubs. It was a piercing mid February day and my car would barely warm up by the time I arrived at the base. I noticed a light dusting of snow on the grass and trees, but there was none on the road. I crossed my fingers that my car, a 14 year old Opel, parked on the frozen street, would start without problems. The best you could say about that car, which had as much rust as paint, was that it was cheap and made the twenty mile round trip to the Air Force Base without complaint. In a garage up the street, we had our dream car, a pristine two years old Volvo , safe, comfortable, reliable, and perfect for family outings. We thought about buying a Porsche, but the Volvo had more room, and was obviously much safer for the boys.
The road from Traben Trarbach to Hahn Air Force Base meandered through a series of switch backs, and then some real hair pin curves as it made its' way past some vineyards, and then up the mountain until it reached a plateau of rolling farms. On that plateau there were several small villages whose main commerce was the production of compost for the vineyards. The compost, while giving the Mosel wine a subtle flavor that could not be matched with chemical fertilizers, saturated the towns with a not so subtle odor. When we moved to this area the stench from the compost piles felt oppressive but it wasn't too long before I began to actually like the sweet-yet-pungent, earthy aroma of the twenty foot high stacks of straw and cow manure. On a cold winter’s day like that day I would see steam rising from these piles. I had learned form one of the farmers that this was a centuries old process of growing sugar beets, barley, rye, and field corn to feed the cows that made the manure, that made the compost, that fertilized the vineyards, that made the world famous wines, that made this whole area prosper. Whenever we had friends or family visiting from the States I would drive them through one of these towns, not say anything, and wait for the inevitable reaction. My father, when he first experienced the aroma of fresh hot compost, rolled up the windows, grabbed his throat in mock choking, made gagging sounds, and asked, "Who farted?" Steve and Dave thought that was the funniest thing ever.
On that frigid morning my hands were numb, even with my leather driving gloves, as I put the key in the ignition and started to crank the engine. It turned over on the second try and I thought, "Thank you, Jesus," and put the car into gear.
One, or maybe two seconds later I was in a strange room looking out onto a strange courtyard with green grass and tulips blooming. People were walking around in shirt sleeves, basking in the warmth of the sun, while I was in a bed and had an IV in my left hand which was tied down. When I tried to move, stiff and aching all over, I found that my body was harnessed to the bed as well. I did not know any of the four or five people in the room. One of them, a fetching woman with long blond hair in a ponytail, wearing a tight green sweater which accentuated her bosom, came to me, blotting the tears in her eyes with a tissue. Her fragrance was intoxicating.
"Vince, you are awake! Oh, Sweetheart! Oh, Vincent! We've been praying for this for months." And then she leaned in surprising me with a warm, passionate kiss on the lips, groaning ever so slightly.
"Vince, you are awake! Oh, Sweetheart! Oh, Vincent! We've been praying for this for months." And then she leaned in surprising me with a warm, passionate kiss on the lips, groaning ever so slightly.
I looked at her and asked, "Who are you?"
The morning Vince's Opel hit the black ice, skidded off the road and rolled four times before landing in a field 35 feet below the road, started with all the usual drudgery. Vince insisted that we all have breakfast together, even the boys, at 6:30 every work day so that we could spend "quality time" together. As a surgeon his hours were unpredictable, and he wanted at least one meal with us as a family. I could understand that, but 6:30? And though he only had cereal or toast, a cup of coffee, and some juice, he insisted that the boys have a full cooked breakfast. They didn't have to be at Frau Polsch's Kinderschule until a nine fifteen (I never could say the military “0915”) and that put a real kink in my day. Steve, the three year old, would occasionally go back to sleep for a few hours but Dave, the four year old, never did. And when Steve did go back to sleep Dave did not want to play alone, so I didn't even get to cat nap. My woman's study group met at 10AM, and I would be the only one who had been up for nearly four hours. “Why did I put up with this crap?” they always asked.
Vince just didn't get it. Everything was about him or "the family," which was really about him. After medical school he decided to do his residency at the University of Michigan because it was the "finest surgical program in the country.” Ann Arbor was nice but what about where I wanted to go? It was a thousand miles away from my parents in western Minnesota, where I thought we should relocate. We wanted children or, I should say, he wanted children, and it would be nice to have built-in babysitters, not to mention loads of wisdom and experience. But U of M it was. And then near the end of his residency, he decided to apply for the spot in Germany. He owed the Air Force two years of active duty for some tuition money to complete med school but the assignment to Germany required a three year commitment. Don’t get me wrong. Germany was great and I was happy to be here. But shouldn't the decision been mine as well?
Most of the things I initially loved about Vince were now becoming such a nuisance. Like every morning he would come over and give me this big kiss in front of the boys. Then he would grab one of my legs and pull it up against him and thrust his pelvis into mine. Why did he think that was appropriate? We hadn't had sex in three weeks and I hadn't enjoyed it for months. And that thing with the Volvo. I wanted a Porsche but "Mr. Reasonable" wouldn't hear of it. He read all these magazines and told me that the Volvo was two times less likely to roll over than the Porsche and that if it did it was four times less likely to cause bodily injury. Or something like that. I didn't really pay attention. But the Porsche was so nice, so sleek. That Volvo was a big heavy ugly box going down the road without appeal.
And he was a chauvinist, not just disdaining women, but everyone and everything. He was narcissistic and arrogant. He looked down on people who were not as smart as him, not as dedicated, not as thin, or not as ramrod straight. His uniform and appearance had to be impeccable. There was only one barber he trusted to cut his hair and trim his mustache, and he visited him at least once a week. He ate three perfect meals a day and never snacked. His meat had all visible fat removed before cooking. He rarely had a drink and never smoked cigarettes or pot. Come on! This was the the ‘70s, Vietnam was just over and most of our friends drank Mosel wine and got high. He didn't like any popular music except for Stevie Wonder and The Beatles, preferring Mozart, Wagner, and Puccini. Why did it take so long for me to see what a stick in the mud he was or how pompous he could be?
He had respect for a few of his colleagues but not most. He worshipped Dr. Dunley, the commander of the hospital, a man who was as controlled and upright as Vince. He was very happy with Nick D'Amico, the nurse anesthetist, who won him over by handling early on a few critical cases very well. Vince was at first very worried about not having a full fledged anesthesiologist at the head of the table, which never happened at the University of Michigan. The fact that both he and Nick were devout Catholics and both from immigrant Italian families from Philadelphia didn't hurt either.
On that unfortunate morning, at around 8:30, I got a phone call from Dr. Dunley. He had never called me before.
"Hi, Kim. This is Jared Dunley." He paused and after I acknowledged him said, "There's been an accident. Vince has been injured, and is being helicoptered to Wiesbaden." Wiesbaden was the Command Hospital for the Air Force in Europe. This had to be serious.
"Is he all right?"
"Kim, I don't want to sugar coat this. This was a terrible accident. But I know that he is alive and has been stabilized and is in the air right now."
I didn't know what to say.
"Kim, please get dressed and gather a few personal items. Rose is on her way to take care of the boys." Rose D'Amico was Nick's wife, a salt-of- the-earth woman, and a natural born mother. "And my wife, Paula, will be there in 30 minutes to pick you up and drive you to Wiesbaden. Don't worry about your house, the dishes, the laundry, your library books, or anything like that. We will get that all covered."
He paused a few seconds and when he spoke again it was obvious that he was fighting back tears.
"Kim, we're family here in the Air Force. Well, Vince was...is my closest friend here and an amazing doctor. Even though I'm the commander, Vince is our real leader. We'll do everything, everything, to fix him and get him back to duty and to take care of you. Count on it."
I was crying now. This was not just a few bruises and lacerations. Vince had been "stabilized." That meant that at some point he must have been unstable. He could die. He might already be dead. I couldn't stop sobbing. I could not catch my breath. I was doubled over on the bench in the vestibule, the phone in my lap, still connected, my half full cup of coffee sitting precariously on the edge of the cushion. There was a loud knock on the door and before I could get up to answer it, Rose D'Amico came in, trying to look relaxed and composed.
"Oh, Kim!" She stood me up, careful to not spill the coffee, and gave me a hug.
"I don't know what's going on for sure,” she said with her thick Philadelphia accent. “Nick told me that Vince's car slid off the road up near Irmenach, and rolled over. I'm so sorry."
And then we were both crying. We hugged again. After a few minutes Rose stepped back, took my hand and led me to my bedroom. She sat me down on the bed and started to gather up several changes of clothes, all my favorite color, green, bedroom slippers and an second pair of shoes, my toothbrush, my glasses, a book and a magazine from my night table. She found a suitcase and packed everything neatly into it.
"Where's Dave and Steve?" she asked.
"They're at Frau Polsch's Kinderschule. I just got back from dropping them off when Dr. Dunley...he called himself Jared Dunley.” I started crying again. “This must be very bad."
"You don't know that, Kim. He always calls himself 'Jared Dunley' when he is talking to the hospital staff. Well look, I'm going to get the boys and take them to my house for the time being."
The boys would love this. Nick and Rose had two girls, seven and three, and they all loved playing together.
"I don't know what to do," I pleaded.
"Don't think about anything but Vince. We'll take care of the boys, everything."
But I really didn't know what to do. Last night, before my world collapsed, before tears diluted my morning coffee, before I found it impossible to breathe, as I walked into our bedroom and saw Vince on his knees for his nightly prayers, I thought I would ask him for a divorce.
I was awake, but in a fog. I did not recognize any of the smiling faces in that room. They brought these two adorable boys to visit me, who called me “Daddy," but I could not place them. I understood the idea of husband and wife but not that Kim was my wife and I her husband. She could have been Pat Nixon as far as I could tell. Of course, I don't remember any of this directly, it all being told to me later, much later, as my brain miraculously unscrambled.
Nick D'amico and Jared Dunley were at my bedside frequently and I gradually began to recognize them, first as newly discovered friends, and later as comrades from my past. I thought that Dr. Dunley, the hospital commander, was as fine a doctor and a person as I had ever met. He had 30 years under his belt and was just about to retire when the Air Forced begged him to take one more assignment, in Germany. The hospital had been completely demoralized under the command of Col. Calvin, Dunley's predecessor, who was despised by every doctor, nurse and technician in the place. Dunley started in the Air Force as a pilot, flying more than 100 combat missions in Korea. After Korea he earned his M.D. and a PhD in physiology at the same time. He became a flight surgeon and developed an expertise in flight physiology and the use of hyperbaric chambers. In recent years he was one of the pioneers in using hyperbaric oxygen to promote healing of wounds and burns. He was the author of dozens of papers on these subjects.
When I came out of the coma and started talking, I knew nothing about being a doctor let alone being a surgeon. I didn't know a suture from a hemostat, or the appendix from the tonsils. I couldn't tell the speech therapist what a white cell did, or where the ulna was. I had never heard of Marquette Medical School or the University of Michigan, even though I spent four years at the first and five years at the second.
Luckily for me, through the great efforts of my doctors, nurses, therapists and, of course, my friends and family, especially Kim, my mind started to recover. I began to recall things from the past and my brain started again to record things that were happening in the present so that I would remember them later. One day, three months after the accident, Kim came into the room and I didn't see a total stranger.
"You're Kim," I said. "My wife, right?"
"Vince, you just keep getting better!"
"Did I get it right? You are Kim, right?"
"Yes, I'm Kim, your wife. And I love you." She came over to me to give me a kiss.
Then I said something I had never said before.
On the morning it happened, Paula Dunley drove me to Wiesbaden, parked in the hospital’s VIP parking lot, and led me through the labyrinth of halls until we arrived at the Neuro-ICU. Dr. Dunley and Nick D'Amico were already at Vince’s bedside. Vince was attached to a myriad of IV's and wires, and was on a ventilator. His eyes were taped shut, the right side of his face bruised and swollen, his head covered with a bandage, his beautiful locks shaved off.
Nick told me the what they knew so far. Vince's Opel hit a patch of black ice and slid off the road near Irmenach. He was not driving very fast but the road was 30 or 40 feet higher than the sugar beet field below and his car rolled several times before it came to rest. His Opel did not have seat belts. A German farmer who was driving his tractor to the field witnessed the whole thing and had the sense to head back to town and phone the police. He recognized the car and knew that it belonged to an American doctor so the Germans notified the Hahn Air Force Base as well as sending their own rescue team. Sargent Don Tennile, the corpsman in charge of the Emergency Room and Stan, the ambulance driver, were out of the door ten minutes after the wreck. Irmenach was a ten minute drive under normal circumstances, but Stan made it in seven. Vince had been thrown from the car and landed fifteen yards away from it. The Germans had him on a stretcher, covered with blankets. Tennile's mouth went dry when he realized it was Vince, but he reached for his dog tags to confirm what he already knew. His vitals were terrible. His pulse was 150 and his blood pressure was not registering. His breathing was irregular and weak. Stan called the hospital and told them it was Dr. Riggio and told them they needed help ASAP. Tennile started an IV and gave him oxygen. He had Stan call again, and this time Dr. Dunley himself was on the line with Nick D’Amico next to him.
"Can you intubate him, Don?" Dr. Dunley inquired.
After he was intubated, Nick advised Tennile to give Vince all of the albumin they had on the crash cart and to give him 2 liters of saline.
"Dr.Dunley," Tennile said, "his right pupil is dilated."
"We'll have a chopper ready, but get him here pronto!"
By the time we arrived in Wiesbaden, Vince had been transfused eight units of blood. He had been to radiology where they did x-rays of his abdomen, and scans of his head. He had gone to surgery where a neurosurgeon drained a blood clot from the right side of his head and placed a pressure monitor in his skull. His spleen had a large hematoma, but the bleeding had stopped and this was not an urgent issue right now.
His neurosurgeon, Dr. Chu, came by and filled in some details.They had removed a large hematoma form the right side of his brain. This clot had been pushing the brain against the other side of the skull. He also suffered other injury to the brain. His cranial pressure was very high and they were doing everything to reduce it. He was in a coma from his head injuries and the high pressure. They also had him on a barbiturate drip to put him in a further coma, which didn't make sense to me until Dr. Dunley explained to me later that this would “let his brain rest."
"Will he be all right, Dr. Chu?” I asked hopefully.
"I don't know. He could die, be severely brain damaged or he might make a complete recovery. We have to wait." Dr. Chu did an about face and left the room without saying goodbye. Not exactly Mr. Warmth.
And so here I was, 5000 miles from my real home, with my brain-injured husband in critical condition. I was surrounded by friends. There were now five people in the room, not counting Vince, and we were all hugs and prayers and reassurances, but, make no mistake about it, I was alone; I was scared; I was lost; and I was helpless. I felt a knot in my stomach as though someone had punched me and the pressure in my chest made it so hard to breathe. Every few minutes I completely broke down and had to be held to keep from falling to the tile floor. And I felt like the floor was caving and I was falling through it. I cried and I cried. It seemed like I would never, could never, stop. How would I go on? What if he died?
Paula Dunley took me to the hospital cafeteria and over tea, after I had regained my composure, I confided in her. This was not like me to confide in someone, and I really didn’t know Paula well, but she would have to do for my mother right now.
"Vince and I were drifting apart in the last few months," I told her. "I was starting to think we should separate or, maybe, get divorced."
"You and Vince are the most adorable couple I know. You guys are the poster kids for what a great marriage should be. You two are so in love you make the rest of us jealous. If you're having problems then they are just the kinds of problems that everyone goes through now and then. You need to look into your soul to get back to where the two of you fell off the track."
Over the next few months I would have plenty of time to look into my soul and to reflect on my life and marriage. I was helped in this by the Hospital Chaplain and also by the Catholic priest, Father Duda. I had frequent visits with the psychiatrist, the social worker and the various therapists and each of them contributed in their own way. Eventually my parents came from Minnesota, and they hugged and cuddled me until I had no more tears to shed.
And so during this time I searched my soul. I peeled off layers of defense and excuses like an onion and finally got a good look inside and, I have to tell you, I did not like what I found.
My recovery continued sluggishly, my physical recovery outpacing my mental recovery. I was walking, lifting light weights, playing with toddler’s puzzles, and drawing and writing long before I knew what to draw or write. They moved me to the rehabilitation unit, where the highly skilled and motivated staff, which had cared for thousands of seriously injured airmen from Vietnam, drilled me at least four hours a day. I met physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, neurologists, and psychologists, and surgeons. Oh, did I meet surgeons! I had five operations, only two of which I remember.
By the end of May, four months after the accident, I felt that I was fully recovered, and was ready to return to Traben Trarbach, to Hahn AFB, and to work. I yearned to be doing what I had trained to do but Jared Dunley threw a monkey wrench into that machinery.
"Vince, you are not ready to do surgery yet."
"But..," I started to interject. Jared cut me off.
"It's not an option, Vince. I have consulted with lots of people but this is my decision. You need at least one more month of rehabilitation. After that we are temporarily reassigning you to Wiesbaden. You will work under Dr. Reese, the head of surgery. I want you to work at least one or two months under supervision before you return to Hahn. We have found a place for your family to stay while you are here and we are still taking care of your house in Traben Trarbach."
I was disappointed and wanted to object. If it had come from anyone but Jared I would have, but I knew that he had made up his mind. It was like that with my father. We would have arguments, we would each say (or scream!) our points and then my dad would say, "That's it, end of discussion." And it was. And my father was almost always right. And Jared was also right. At least I would be able to gain the confidence of my peers and patients.
Getting my career back on track turned out to be easy but as my mind improved and I started seeing things more clearly, I realized that I had a much more pressing problem. My marriage had been gradually and imperceptibly, at least to me, heading toward the rocks.
A neurologist came in one day to examine Vince after he woke up.
“What is this?” he asked Vince.
“What is this?”
“What year is it?”
Vince thought hard and answered “1955.” He was only off by twenty years.
“What is your name?” the neurologist asked him. Vince had no idea. Nor could he name me or any of the people in the room. The neurologist said he was making great progress.
Not only was his memory of past events or people gone, but he was unable to retain new things, forgetting things in just a few moments. The German police came by to ask him some questions about the accident. He spoke to them in perfect German, more fluent than before the accident, as though he no longer had to use English as an intermediate language in his mind, as though the part of the brain that housed German had been liberated. He was not able to tell them anything about the accident but he told one of the policemen, in perfect German, that his hair was too long, that his tie was not tied properly and that his hands were filthy. After they left and I asked him what he had said to the Germans. He said, “What Germans?”
I had to re-introduce myself to Vince dozens of times. His parents flew in from Philadelphia and he did not recognize them, becoming visibly upset when these “total strangers” started hugging and kissing him. When he told them to “get the fuck out of here!,” I did my best to reassure them that this was his damaged brain speaking, as one of the therapist had said, and not to take it to heart, as hard for them to do as it was for me.
He couldn’t tell the doctors where he grew up, where he went to school, or what he did for a living, although he had a vague feeling that before the accident he may have been a doctor.
“Where did you go to medical school?” a speech therapist asked him. He had no idea.
“What is a medical school?” she followed, trying to determine if he understood the concept. “It’s a place you go to play doctor.” Everyone laughed but Vince didn’t get the joke.
A nurse came into the room one day, and asked if he needed anything. “Nice tits,” he told her. He reached out to touch them, but she gracefully ducked, and avoided his hands. He may have been a misogynist in some previous life, but at the time he didn’t realize that he was being inappropriate. Nor when he told Father Duda, the Catholic priest, that God was the boogeyman. Nor when he told an orderly to “get my fucking lunch.” Vince never cursed before and was actually offended if someone cursed in his presence, other than his father, who only cursed in Italian.
Once he refused to wear any clothes and tore all the sheets and pillow cases off the bed and slept stark naked Out of the blue, one day, he became a vegetarian and asked the mess staff why anyone would eat an animal. Didn’t they think that was cruel. That lasted less than a week. Funny thing is that he had never been a vegetarian before and had never even talked about vegetarianism, always ready to eat a good medium rare steak, as long as all of the visible fat had been removed, without qualms.
The day after the accident the Catholic priest, Father Duda, came to visit me. He told me that before Vince was wheeled into surgery, because his dog tag said "Catholic," he had anointed Vince with Extreme Unction, a sacrament of the Catholic Church, the Last Rites, administered to the extremely ill, especially those at risk of dying, meant to give comfort and peace to the ill, and to forgive sins for those unable to make a confession.
"Vince never sinned," I told him.
Father Duda smiled and said, "We all sin. It's in our nature."
"Vince never sinned," I repeated. "Well, he is a devout Catholic. He believes in God. He actually talks to God, and I mean personally, like God is right in the room. He believes in Mary, Joseph, and all that stuff. He believes in the Pope."
Father Duda smiled again. "We don't believe in the Pope. He's a person just like you and me. He's just the leader of our Church."
"Well, Vince told me the Pope was infallible."
“The Pope is believed by Catholics to be infallible only in matters of faith, and then only when he says that he is," Father Duda explained. "The Pope cuts his face shaving, trips over his shoelaces, and spells words wrong sometimes. He's not infallible like Superman. The Pope sins. Did you know that? He goes to confession like all good Catholics. There were some popes, especially a few hundred years ago, who were quite evil."
I changed the subject. "We were married in a Catholic church, and I sort of said that I might covert but I never did, which has been a big disappointment for Vince."
Over the next several weeks Father Duda visited every day. He would start with a prayer and ask God to bless Vince, me, and the boys, and to give us the strength to get through this difficult time. Then we would sit and talk. About God. About the Air Force. About Germany. About Vince's immigrant, Italian family. About my midwestern, heartland, Norwegian, Lutheran, farming background. Sometimes we would just sit and say nothing. He never pressed me to become Catholic or even suggested it, but one day a few weeks after the accident, I told him I was ready.
"I hope you are not doing this to bargain with God. To force God to heal Vince. God doesn't like being forced into a corner."
"No, not to bargain. It's just that the way you explain it we're not that different, Catholics and Lutherans, just details. And Vince is so devoted to his church. I just think after nine years together I could do this for Vince."
"That works for me!" he said. He also told me that he hoped, as time went by, I would see this as something I did, not for Vince, but for myself, for my own soul.
So in the Wiesbaden AFB Hospital Chapel, Father Duda baptized me in the presence of God, my sons, Nick and Rose D'Amico and Paula and Jared Dunley. As I felt the water on my forehead, and listened to the solemn Latin words, a great calm came over me. I prayed that Vince would wake up soon so I could tell him about his newly-converted Catholic wife.
It's been eight months since "the event" and things have settled down nicely. Kim, the boys and I are back in Traben Trarbach and I am back doing surgery, and doing it well. The not one, not two, but three months I worked with Dr. Reese at Wiesbaden were not squandered, but well spent, even though I didn't think I needed them to begin with. My reflexes and judgement were just slightly off kilter, like a well-made knife that needed a bit more honing. Now I am razor sharp, one hundred percent back to where I was before that morning. Well, that’s not entirely true because no matter how hard I try, I cannot remember anything from the time I placed the Opel into gear until I woke up to a room full of strangers. It’s like the first two or three years of my life: I know I learned how to walk and talk, how to eat from a spoon, how to make people laugh, the difference between cats and dogs, and the difference between boys and girls. I just don’t remember any of it.
Last week, Kim and I took the boys for a drive up to Irmenach. We asked around, and were eventually directed to the house of Herr Gerhardt Schmitt, the farmer who saved my life by alerting the police about the accident. We were greeted at the door by his wife who knew, at a glance, who we were and invited us in. Her husband came into the room, and he and I looked at each other for a moment before we embraced, both of us with moist eyes. We spoke in German, even the boys, who were getting quite fluent. Frau Schmitt, a plump woman in a simple cotton dress, insisted we sit at the table and went off to prepare some tea and a huge plate of roegenbrot and specht. The boys perked up when they heard her mention she had some Gummi-Baerchen, their favorite German candy (and the first German words they ever learned.)
The Schmitts were kind and unpretentious, hardscrabble people like Kim's family, happily bound to this town and to the earth. They produced compost, and it's hard to get wealthy doing that. But the kitchen was spotless, its’ bare wooden floors sparkling, the dark oak kitchen table covered with an elaborate German lace tablecloth, its’ walls adorned with old family photographs, and its’ shelves stacked with fine china passed down over generations, survivors of at least two wars. Frau Schmitt served the strong tea, the rye bread and the ham on this china.
Herr Schmitt told us that when he saw my car coming in his direction, he recognized the Opel, formerly owned by a woman in Kessell, the next village over and he knew I was an Air Force officer and a doctor. Almost everyone in Irmenach knew who I was, he told us, because I had stopped one day to speak to one of the farmers and to inspect the compost piles. I was very curious about the whole process of growing the corn, sugar beets, and rye, to feed the cattle, the harvesting of the milk and the dung, the proper stacking of the manure and the straw, the checking of the temperature of the piles and the eventual distribution of the finished compost to the vineyards. No other American had ever been so inquisitive about what they did. Most, he said, rolled up their windows tight and sped off to avoid the smell. He told me that the farmer had also been impressed by how well I spoke German. Herr Schmitt complimented all of us, even the boys, on our German.
When he saw my Opel slide off the road and tumble over, he didn't think I could have survived. There were only three telephones in Irmenach and, danke Gott, he was able to use one immediately. He watched as first the Germans, and then the Americans, came to my rescue and was encouraged when he saw them start an IV, as that was surely a sign that I was still alive. He had heard very little about my fate since then. Frau Schmitt told us how much they prayed for me and how happy they were that I was well and that I came to see them. We vowed to keep in touch and we did, the Schmitts becoming our parents, in abstentia, providing the boys with two warm and gentle grandparents nearby.
In marriage counseling, started soon after discharge from the hospital, we learned that we had a marriage needing mending but worth saving. Our reconciliation was made easier because the Vince who woke up in the ICU was not the same Vince who had left for work that morning, still intense and striving for perfection, but without arrogance and narcissism, the ugliest parts of his personality,. He was more relaxed and accepting of others, especially of me and the boys. In therapy he said that sliding off that road, and having all those injuries, including the brain injury and coma, was the best thing that could have happened. "It knocked some sense into me," he said.
And the accident had knocked some sense into me as well. I had come close to discarding something that only needed to be repaired. As I sat in the ICU, and later, as we sat in therapy, I learned that I had come to resent the very things that had attracted me to Vince, the things that made him such a great doctor and father, his meticulousness, his drive, his attentiveness, his industry, his ethics, and his faith. I had come to resent how perfect and ordered he was. And with resentment, came distrust and then hatred. I know that some of this resentment was from his hubris and his being such a bullhead. Some of it came from jealousy of Vince’s accomplishments, his adulation by the throngs around him, and even by his charisma. But some of it sprung from what I was learning in my women’s studies, those 10am book readings we had. That men were pigs; that all men put all women in their place; that men drove women to depression; that women never gave their full consent to sex; that, indeed, sex was the equivalent of rape and that men used this sex/rape to keep women under their thumbs. I saw Vince as part of a conspiracy to belittle women. He was why I was unhappy. None of it was my fault. I resisted intimacy with Vince because he was so high and mighty and because I didn’t want to give into this domination.
After I woke up, I came to realize how lucky I was that Kim had tolerated my vanity and bravado. My self-centered behavior had almost cost me my marriage and I vowed to never let that happen again. I had everything just so well laid out before the accident. The best college, a top medical school and one of the most sought after surgical residencies in the country. Kim wanted our marriage to be give-and-take but I was always looking for what was best for me. Kim and I entered joint therapy to help resolve our differences. After only one session, the marriage councilor recommended that I get individual treatment from someone else as well. I have been seeing a kindly psychotherapist weekly since then. I used to snub psychiatrists, psychologists and all mental health workers, thinking that they were not dealing with real diseases, and that all this “talk therapy” didn’t help anyway. Have I changed my opinion on that? You bet'cha!
On the first anniversary of the accident I drove Kim and the boys up to Irmenach. Very carefully, I might add since it was another frigid February day. We parked along the side of the road at the exact spot where I had slipped on the black ice. We got out of the Volvo, gazed onto the field below the road, and bowed our heads in silent prayer. Herr Schmitt, working the fields, saw us and then aimed his tractor toward us and climbed down to greet us. He wiped his right hand off on his jacket and offered it to me. He gave Kim a bow and a broad smile and patted the boys on the head when they hugged his legs. He was aware that it was the one year anniversary of the accident and was hoping to see us. Frau Schmitt, he said, would be so disappointed if we didn’t stop by their house for some refreshments. The boys climbed on to the tractor and he gave them a ride to his house while we followed in the Volvo. Frau Schmitt cried when she saw us. We sat at her kitchen table for nearly an hour savoring her delicious apple tarts and strong tea. She had some coloring books and treats for the boys who always felt so comfortable with “Oma.”
As we were about to leave I stood up and said to Kim, “Honey, I almost forgot. There is something you need to see in Herr Schmitt’s barn.”
As we were about to leave I stood up and said to Kim, “Honey, I almost forgot. There is something you need to see in Herr Schmitt’s barn.”
Kim looked at me with surprise, then gave me the same mischievous look she used at that fraternity party so long ago. Like, “What do you nave up your sleeve?” Frau Schmitt, knowing what I had done, could hardly contain herself. She lead us through the kitchen, clapping her hands together and dancing like I never knew she could, past the oak table with its’ fine German lace, past the heirloom china, and out the side door facing the barn. Herr Schmitt followed behind, singing out festively in German. The Schmitts slowly approached the barn, David and Stephen jumping with glee at their feet, and with great flare opened the the large swinging barn doors from both sides. Sitting in the barn, wrapped in a gigantic white ribbon tied in a bow, bathed in streaks of sunlight beaming through the rafters, was a 1971 Porsche, in mint condition. Its’ color, of course, was a sparkling Metallic Green.
Author’s Note. This is a work of fiction. I once met a man who had been in an accident and had no recollection of it or of his stay in the hospital. But I didn’t really know him. I never knew if he was married, what kind of work he did or anything else about him. I was a doctor in the Air Force in Germany during the ‘70s but not a surgeon. I have fond memories of the Air Force and Germany. I had an amazing hospital commander while I was there. I am not Vince, not even close. Kim is not my first wife nor my second wife. Nor is she an amalgam of them, as if they could be amalgamated. There is an Irmenach in Germany and, yes, it does produce some of the finest compost in the world.